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9. Acceptance into elite colleges is the wrong goal

A student looks on at an array of school materials.

A student looks on at an array of school materials.

Tyler Kinzy

A student looks on at an array of school materials.

Tyler Kinzy

Tyler Kinzy

A student looks on at an array of school materials.

9. Acceptance into elite colleges is the wrong goal

It begins with a schedule filled to the brim with honors and AP classes to gain the upper hand in a frenzied GPA free-for-all, followed by several more hours allocated to an extensive array of athletics and extracurricular activities to further embellish one’s résumé. All of this occurs before topping the day off with tutoring sessions and preparation aimed at eking as many points out of standardized tests as possible.

The common denominator in this modern-day high school mayhem? A K-12 education system that views acceptance into the most prestigious universities as the end goal above all else. A Johns Hopkins research study found that 73 percent of parents believed it was “very important for their child to attend a top-level college/university” while 81 percent considered it crucial to their child’s eventual success in the workforce. Besides the hefty price of tuition, we as a society have refused to collectively pause and ask ourselves: at what cost do today’s youth partake in the heated competition that continues to seize a stranglehold on every aspect of their lives?

There is almost certainly nonzero correlation between the academic environment high schools foster and the rising prevalence of youth mental health issues. With the notion that anything short of an Ivy League diploma is failure instilled into teeanagers’ psyches, student stress levels have skyrocketed. In 2015, more than nine million adolescents suffered from an anxiety disorder or major depressive episode, alarming figures that continue to climb as the pressure for perfection mounts. The Harvard School of Education surveyed over 10,000 middle and high school students, with an overwhelming 48 percent identifying their own achievements as the utmost priority. Rather than kindle genuine interests for learning as teenagers catch their first glimpses of the adult world, the perceived value of attending an elite college has transformed high schools across America into places where students can buttress their college applications by piling on accolades and Advanced Placement credentials.

I am one of the students who has felt this burden to check all the proverbial boxes that differentiate the supposed winners from the losers in the eyes of college admissions offices. A student of Parkway’s MOSAICS Academy program since the third grade, the path to Cambridge, Mass. or Stanford, Calif. was presented as an expectation as opposed to a potential option that may or may not best suit me.

After exhausting the list of math courses offered at West Middle in seventh grade, my Academy peers and I spent each morning the following year at West High for our math class, and since we had also completed the highest level of middle school science classes, we were enrolled in Honors Biology as well. Sensing that my love for learning had gradually burned out after years of nonstop accelerated classes, my parents suggested I not take an additional honors course on top of an already rigorous workload. They claimed that my desire to become the perfect applicant universities salivate over created an unhealthy imbalance between academia and time to explore the numerous wonders of being a kid. Retrospectively, I recognize that I was exhibiting symptoms oftentimes associated with depression.

The ensuing debate pitted my protests, predicated entirely on the GPA boost that honors classes provide, against their concern for my well-being. It became increasingly clear that this decision would dictate whether or not I, at the tender age of 12 years old, went all in on the race for acceptance into top-tier universities. Ultimately, my objections were overruled and of the eighth graders who took classes on West High’s campus, the only one not in an Honors Biology classroom was me.

In the school year that followed, I watched as one of my closest friends exited class with tears rolling down their cheeks, fearful that, at just 13 years of age, a science fair project would sink their cumulative GPA, an outcome they were convinced would inevitably resign them to a miserable lifestyle. This is the reality that setting the goal of achieving college elitism perpetuates. These students weren’t racking their brains with the nuances of mitosis because cell division fascinated them. Rather, they were sacrificing a substantial portion of their childhood to gain a leg up in the looming college admissions process.

Some may call the alternate route that I opted for as lazy, the type of choice made by somebody who prefers the easy way out. “He displayed a lack of academic rigor,” an Ivy League school may say as they slam their doors shut. However, I have since come around to consider the decision I made as a calculated tradeoff.

I cashed in hours previously spent frantically cramming content I would mentally discard the next day anyway for participation in school plays, performances on the Running With Scissors improv team and competition at speech and debate tournaments. I was hired to write statistical analysis articles about the St. Louis Cardinals for SB Nation’s Viva El Birdos blog in what has been a remarkable first job experience. I forwent amassing National Honors Society service hours to arrange meetings with state legislators. It was expending precious schedule slots on courses I enjoyed rather than those with honors or AP distinguishment that enabled me to join the Pathfinder staff in the first place.

This philosophy regarding high school may very well cost me the Harvard or Yale acceptance letters my peers so desperately covet. To that I would counter with my growing sense of self-fulfillment. My average day is just as intellectually stimulating, but directing greater attention towards my passions has made me a happier individual now than ever before. No piece of paper can replace that.

The high school experience is a one-time offer. No mulligans. No do-overs. To my fellow students, I urge you not to squander what remains of your childhood years in the name of a shot at the wrong target.

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